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Calif. attorney general candidate Dave Jones an unexpected ally of Death Row inmate

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© AP This undated photo provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation shows death row inmate Kevin Cooper. San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos is opposing new DNA testing and has asked Gov. Jerry Brown to…

By Bob Egelko

Condemned California inmate Kevin Cooper, who says he was framed for four murders that sent him to Death Row, has a new ally in his pursuit of new DNA testing of crime-scene evidence — state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, who has raised it as an issue in his campaign against Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

Cooper, now 60, was convicted of fatally slashing a man, a woman and two children in 1983 in a home in San Bernardino County, near a prison from which he had recently escaped while serving a sentence for burglary. He came within eight hours of execution in 2004 before a federal court granted a stay, but now has lost the final appeal of his death sentence.

Five federal appeals court judges, however, signed a dissenting opinion in 2009 saying Cooper was “probably innocent” and raising questions about the handling of the evidence in the case. Cooper’s lawyers asked Gov. Jerry Brown in February 2016 to grant a reprieve and order an investigation that would include modern-day DNA testing of a bloody T-shirt found near the victims’ home, a hatchet, and hairs found on the bodies that may have come from the killer or killers.

Brown has not yet responded. His press secretary, Evan Westrup, said the matter is still under review. But two weeks ago, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who opposed the DNA testing when she was the state’s attorney general, said she now supports it and said she hoped the governor and the state would allow testing in the case. Jones, running against fellow Democrat Becerra in Tuesday’s primary election, has now added his voice.

Jones opposes the death penalty. As attorney general, he said in an interview, “I’ll be sworn to enforce the death penalty, but I’ll work towards its repeal, and in cases like the Kevin Cooper case I would advocate for DNA testing of the evidence.”

Based on Cooper’s claims of innocence, he said, this is “a very clear and compelling case for using the most recent DNA technology to test that evidence.” One reason he opposes capital punishment, he said, is that “criminal justice is a human system and humans make mistakes. ... I think it’s quite possible that someone could be put to death by the state who was wrongly convicted. We’ve had a number of exonerations on Death Row.”

Jones also said Becerra, who has custody of one of the disputed items of evidence — the T-shirt — has refused to recommend releasing it for testing. Becerra’s campaign manager, Dana Williamson, did not comment on that allegation but said Jones “clearly hasn’t read the job description for attorney general.”

“It would be inappropriate for the attorney general to make a personal statement about a matter that is under consideration by his client — in this case, the governor,” Williamson said in a statement.

But Norman Hile, a lawyer for Cooper, said he would seek court approval to test the T-shirt if the attorney general agreed. He also said support from Becerra for DNA testing might persuade Brown and San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos to release all of the evidence.

Becerra supports the death penalty. Brown opposes it but also said, while serving as state attorney general, that there were no innocent people on California’s Death Row.

Cooper was convicted of murdering Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and an 11-year-old houseguest, Chris Hughes, in the Ryens’ home in Chino Hills in June 1983.

The Ryens’ 8-year-old son, Josh, was stabbed in the throat but survived. He later testified that he recognized Cooper as the lone attacker. But while being treated for his wounds in a hospital, he communicated to a social worker with hand signals that the assailants had been three or four white men. Cooper is black.

DNA testing ordered by a court in 2004 found Cooper’s DNA on the T-shirt. But Judge William Fletcher, who wrote the appeals court dissent in 2009, said the defense had evidence of preservatives in the blood sample — an indication, he said, that police had taken the blood from a lab in an effort to frame Cooper.

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U.S. - U.S. Daily News: Calif. attorney general candidate Dave Jones an unexpected ally of Death Row inmate
Calif. attorney general candidate Dave Jones an unexpected ally of Death Row inmate
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U.S. - U.S. Daily News
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